Interview: Oliver Peyton OBE (October 2014)

Posted on: October 14th, 2014 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Oliver Peyton

At the relatively tender age of 52, Oliver Peyton has enjoyed consistency and longevity in an outstanding career as an innovative restaurateur.  Awarded the OBE some years ago, Oliver is now experiencing a renaissance in his business outlook and discusses this at Inn the Park, St James’ Park, London with Simon Carter of fine dining guide.  Interview took place during early autumn 2014.

What inspired you to create Peyton & Byrne

We needed to start bringing everything under one umbrella.  A single company was required to have a cohesive strategy and vision going forward.  I had stopped doing whatever took my fancy and wanted a firmer foundation and focus for the future.  The Peyton is my name and Byrne is my mother’s maiden name.

With Peyton & Byrne I don’t like doing what other people do, we like to have a (hopefully in some places) ground breaking approach to doing things, for example we blend all our own tea and bake all our own bread and cakes.  These are things that if done properly take a lot of time, energy and skill and I’m very proud of where we’re heading in these regards.  We tend not to rebrand in what we do and so Peyton & Byrne allowed a number of disparate ideas to come together under a single umbrella with a single brand.

Tell us about some of your ventures?

We operate in some inspirational venues, just sitting here on a summer’s evening (on the bar and terrace at Inn The Park, St James’ Park, London) I really don’t think there’s a more beautiful spot in the world.

I’m trying to go back to my roots to create more unique concepts like I did when I was younger.  With places like the National Gallery, Royal Academy and Imperial War Museum we understand what people are looking for and seek to deliver the right kind of quality end product.  For example when we opened at the National Gallery people said we’d get no custom in the evenings – while it has taken some time, the evenings are now popular and successful.

When Inn the Park opened in St James’ Park, getting suppliers for an all year round British restaurant, in the depths of January and February, was a real struggle.  Now there is a plethora of suppliers for all year round restaurants – perhaps fortune favours the brave in doing something new and becoming successful.  Another example would be the selling of alcohol in a London park, when Inn the Park opened we started that practice and now you find alcohol is served everywhere.

I’m a firm believer that in any business, and maybe this business in particular, you get back what you put in.  A loyal customer base and associated following can be developed but easily lost if you rest on your laurels.  I’m in the (constant) process of reviewing our offerings to see what changes or upgrades need doing, to always keep things fresh and exciting, both for me and for Peyton & Byrne’s customers.

There is now so much choice for the consumer, the mid-market has expanded dramatically and the high street (you can even get a decent meal for under £10 on Piccadilly) has become part of the competitive field, even for beautiful venues like The Royal Academy.

The result is you have to be on your game all the time.

With respect to museums and galleries, these represent partnerships that work for all parties; the consumer enjoys some food and drink during hours beyond those of typical operation, while the venues themselves are part of institutions that need to drive more revenue.  The concept is also extendable to family style restaurants such as that which we’ve opened at The Imperial War Museum.  Similarly, a venue like the Royal Academy may want to maximise use of their space; so while strolling through that beautiful courtyard people can enjoy a drink in the evening.

What are your views on staff development and customer satisfaction?

I’ve taken on some quality people; David Simms, who was with Albert Roux (Le Gavroche) for many years, has come on board as Executive Chef.  Part of his role will be to develop talent in the business with nurturing plans for young chefs.  The group has all these beautiful venues so it is right that it should strive to be the best of breed at what it does.  A corollary is that there should be a queue of people waiting and hoping to join Peyton Events because the company reputation is such that it is best of breed for training, nurturing and developing their talent.

In terms of our customer satisfaction, it is perhaps a sign of the times in this industry that, as a restaurateur, I’m now finding myself focusing even more on the front of house offering than the food product.  It has become almost a given that you’ll be served decent food in London but not so clear that the quality of service will be there to match – strangely in the recession it was hard to recruit the right blend of front of house staff and I think that was partly due to the nature of London.

Tell us some examples of Peyton & Byrne business ventures?

I aim to have a couple of ‘go-to’ highly rated top end restaurants, then there’s the solid, top-of the-mid-market, restaurants and café’s like Inn The Park where you know you’ll get decent food and drink, well served, in a beautiful space.

While I’m focusing on getting the products the strongest they can be from the inside out, I’m also still driving new business ideas and concepts.  For example, I would like to have a collection of British Bakeries: There’s a story here, this idea actually came about from visiting Salisbury Cathedral and thinking that I’d like to have a snack, unbelievably there was nothing British on the high street.  A British bakery would be ideal in these circumstances so that is what I want to look at in more detail as a potential national venture.

Bakeries must produce their own product; sandwiches, for example, made with fresh bread done properly without preservatives so they are only good for a day.  Its having the supply chain, the reliability and consistency that all come from learning by doing (sadly there’s no book on how to run a collection of British Bakeries) and our site in Greenwich – which is bigger and better – will be part of that learning process.  I’m a firm believer that these business’ have a life, a life cycle, and you have to nurture them through that life in an evolutionary way to maximize your success.

Culturally perhaps we can become more like The French who think nothing of going and buying their bread twice a day.  Supermarkets in this country demand a minimum of a five day shelf life (even for the loose ‘fresh’ bread, never mind the packaged product) and this stems from the customer – with a change in the customer habits comes new market opportunities!

What is it like working with your three sisters?

It’s a family business where we all do different and important jobs.  I probably have the most customer-facing role but we’re a strong family unit – a team – who succeed by working together and all doing our different jobs well.  Each of us is a shareholder in the business and I think as you get older you get wiser in working together effectively.  Most importantly it is usually fun to work together and I like the feeling of a family business.

What is your proudest professional achievement?

I hope my proudest professional achievement is still to come, I’m only 52, although receiving an OBE was quite something!  I was very proud to be awarded a Catey from this industry, too. I feel I’m enjoying something of a renaissance, with more scope to focus on entrepreneurial matters (as my children are now going through school so there’s a little more freedom to get back to business as a result.)  I also believe that as you accumulate knowledge and experience in life you become better placed to make informed decisions so I’m looking forward to implementing all the ideas that I know will be workable and successful through the experiences I have been lucky enough to enjoy (well mostly enjoy!).

How do you know whether a venue will work as a restaurant?

As a restaurateur, you find that a venue has some magic dust that makes it a great venue.  I can sense a great restaurant before I’ve even received a menu, its strange but I’m sure that most experienced and successful restaurateurs will tell you the same thing about that intangible magic dust you just sense in the atmosphere of great places.  It doesn’t have to be the most expensive or smartest restaurant, the magic can happen anywhere…

What is your most interesting experience of Great British Menu?

One chef, who burnt his fish, tried to get his manager to persuade the BBC to reshoot the show.  (This was quite some time ago) The chef didn’t realize that yes, while it was television and things could theoretically be shot again, it was actually a competition.

I’ve learned a lot about myself through the show; to start with I was very nervous and lacking in self confidence but as the shows went on I learned that actually I had been around accumulating experience for a while and was pretty well qualified to be doing the job which in turn actually gave me a confidence boost.

We thought it would be a one-off show, but it has done so well and I think deservedly so!  The show has maybe helped bring to the attention of the rural community the need for artisan quality products for this type of restaurant market.

From a competing chef’s point of view, I struggle to understand anyone who rocks up for a TV show without having practiced the life out of their expected repertoire for the show.  Why wouldn’t you?  You’d be surprised but unprepared chefs do happen, perhaps typically the type of chef that is so busy making ends meet that they just don’t have time to put into Great British Menu preparation.  On the other side of the coin, the show has transformed businesses for chefs that would otherwise be struggling.

What do you think of the restaurant business?

On the whole it’s a tough old business, a close knit community, and even where chefs are competitive they are turn out in support of each other, precisely because they appreciate how tough it is and that in a way they’re all on the same ship together!